On Wednesday afternoon Israeli authorities from the Jerusalem Municipality, accompanied by police forces, entered into the Shufat refugee camp in occupied East Jerusalem and began demolishing Palestinian storefronts in the camp.
By the time authorities left, some 18 clothing, grocery, and bakery shops and three gas stations had been bulldozed to the ground, according to locals. Some of the shops had been standing for more than a decade.
The demolitions are the latest action taken by the municipality inside Shufat, as part of the city’s new policy of extending the reach of municipal enforcement to Palestinian refugee camps in East Jerusalem, in order to end the presence of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Jerusalem and eventually shut down all its services.
Shufat Camp is home to 23,000 Palestinians, around 19,000 of whom are registered with UNRWA and receive core services from the agency, including healthcare, education, sanitation, and food assistance. With the municipality extending its reach into the camp, residents fear not only losing such services, but losing their identities as refugees.
The store owners were delivered demolition notices on Tuesday night and told they had only 12 hours to evacuate the storefronts. The shops, according to the municipality, were subject to demolition because they were built without Israeli-issued construction permits.
While Israeli police claimed in a statement that the demolitions were carried out due to complaints from camp residents — citing congestion and crowding in the center of the camp where the shops were located — locals have maintained their vehement opposition to the municipality’s growing presence in the community.
Ahmad Abu Holy, the head of the Palestinian Legislative Council’s refugee department, released a statement condemning the demolitions in which he accused the Jerusalem Municipality of “waging a war” on the Shufat Camp.
“The Israeli municipality of West Jerusalem intends to change the character of the camp as part of… [Mayor] Nir Barkat’s plan to end the status of the camp as a refugee camp,” Abu Holy said.
He continued: “This would mean changing the status of the camp’s refugees from refugees to non-refugees…they will be subject to municipality laws and have to pay high taxes on their shops and homes, in order to force them to leave it and move to the occupied West Bank.”
Last month, outgoing Mayor of Jerusalem Barkat announced he would begin enforcing municipal policies to Shufat and other East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods cut off from the city by Israel’s separation wall.
While Barkat has touted the new policy as granting these previously neglected neighborhoods with access to city services such as garbage collection, Wednesday’s demolition campaign confirmed locals’ fears that the municipality means trouble for the camp.
Earlier this month, after Barkat and a crew of municipal officials staged a trash cleanup in the camp, locals told Mondoweiss that the move was just the first step to taking over UNRWA’s responsibilities in the camp.
“We can see there are many places in Jerusalem where Arabs live, and the municipality doesn’t give them services like the Jews,” 51-year-old Shaher Alqam, a resident of Shufat, said at the time, pointing to cases of neglected roads, high water and electricity prices, lack of building permits, and continued home demolitions in East Jerusalem.
“If the municipality takes over the camp, this same thing will happen to us,” he said.